It didn’t take long for problems to arise with Sabrina Elliott’s two-bedroom rental home off South Pennsylvania Avenue.
The garage flooded the first week, while most of her belongings were stowed in boxes on the floor. Her sofa and bed retain a wavy brown streak from the water damage. Within a month, cockroaches made nests in the stove, kitchen cabinets and cracks throughout the house. Eventually, they began falling from curtain rods and crawling out of light sockets.
“Besides spraying for the roaches once, he’s never fixed anything I’ve asked for,” Elliott said of her landlord, as she scrolled through text messages showing complaints and repair requests she’s made the last two years.
In May 2021, the landlord raised her rent by $100 a month to $850. By October, she fell behind. With an outstanding balance and a $50 monthly late fee, any request Elliott made for repairs was met with threats of eviction from her landlord.
This month, after receiving a letter demanding rent and threatening eviction via text, she decided to withhold rent and save for a new place. She was served by the sheriff last week and ended up on Wednesday’s eviction docket, along with 104 other Oklahoma County residents.
A proposal aimed at helping people like Elliott faces a deadline this week in the Legislature. Two Lawton-based Republican lawmakers introduced HB2109, which would protect some tenants from retaliation if they file complaints or lawsuits against landlords. No more surprise rent hikes, neglected repairs, or threats of eviction just for submitting maintenance requests.
If passed it would apply only to landlords with 10 or more units and exempts situations like Elliott’s, when a tenant is behind on rent. Thursday is the last day the bill, which has already passed the House, can be discussed on the Senate floor.
Most evictions are filed because a tenant is behind on rent, studies show. Oklahoma is one of only six states that offer no protection for people who fall behind or withhold rent to pressure for repairs.
With the end of the Covid-19 eviction moratorium in August 2021, exhausted federal rental assistance and expanded food stamp benefits, evictions in the state are returning to pre-pandemic levels.
More than 110,000 eviction orders have been filed in Oklahoma since 2019 — two-thirds of which were in Oklahoma and Tulsa counties, according to the Legal Services Corporation eviction tracker. The figures do not include 2023.
There are still concerns from lawmakers as to how certain provisions will be enforced and the prospects of tying up renters and their landlords in expensive lawsuits, but the bill passed its second committee hearing on April 10 in a 6-5 vote and is being carried by Sen. John Michael Montgomery to the Senate floor for its last round of questioning and debate before potentially becoming law.
Some fair housing advocates call the bill a welcomed step toward protecting tenants, but worry that language meant to safeguard landlords with fewer rental units from costly litigation will allow certain large-scale real-estate investors to continue predatory renting practices.
Landlords say the bill will cause them to raise their standards for whom their average renters are by increasing qualifying credit scores and refusing to rent people with criminal backgrounds, ultimately hurting those low-income families and individuals the bill is meant to help by.
‘A Balanced Approach’
Rep. Daniel Pae said the goal of his legislation is to balance and modernize the Landlord-Tenant Act, bringing Oklahoma up to the standards of 44 other states in the U.S. with anti-retaliation provisions in their state laws.
Neighboring states like Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico spell out their own versions of anti-retaliation provisions in their state laws and allow tenants to withhold rent when their landlords neglect or ignore requests for repairs.
Oklahoma is among those states that allow tenants to make their own repairs and deduct the costs from their monthly rent.
“When it comes to making a complaint about the safety or health-related conditions of a rental property, the bill explicitly protects the tenant from any sort of retaliation,” Pae said, “On the other hand when it comes to a tenant who does not make that complaint in good faith, there are still ways for the landlord to use eviction and to increase rent.
“I think it’s a balanced approach that we’re taking, incorporating both the landlord’s perspective and the tenant’s perspective and making sure it’s a fair process and a transparent process.”
The bill does at least one thing tenant advocates have long sought, said Eric Hallett, an attorney representing Tulsa tenants in eviction proceedings. It allows renters to claim damages and attorney’s fees from their landlords in court if they can prove they were retaliated against.
Convincing judges to hear a retaliation case is difficult because many rule in the landlord’s favor if there is any back rent owed, said Hallett, who coordinates housing advocacy at Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma. The Oklahoma Access to Justice Foundation’s August 2022 study of eviction courts highlighted a “two-question approach” to rapid rulings:
“Do you have a lease?”
“Are you behind on rent?”
If the answer to both questions is yes, judges grant the eviction order without questioning the landlord or the landlord’s lawyer, according to the report.
“Hopefully, this bill will get judges to start considering that there may be a defense as to why the tenant hasn’t paid rent,” said Hallett
For Elliott, 42, it would’ve meant an opportunity to explain her situation to a judge and perhaps be reimbursed for enduring substandard conditions while paying rent.
Instead, she is worried about her credit score. In Oklahoma, evictions appear on a person’s credit and rental history 30–60 days after a court judgment and remain for seven years.
“Hopefully having an eviction doesn’t stop me from getting a place,” Elliott said.
The Bill’s Limitations
Pae said the language focusing on landlords with 10 or more rentals is meant to crack down on out-of-state apartment complex investors and protect others. But the provision raised some concerns during HB2109’s last public discussion.
Sen. Joe Newhouse, R-Tulsa, said he likes the spirit of the bill, adding that he doesn’t think landlords should be able to retaliate against their tenants for making complaints. Still, a self-proclaimed property manager of 12 years, Newhouse questioned how that language would be enforced beyond apartment owners.
“If this is just one building with 10 units, then I can see a scenario where you would want to not have drastic price increases on one tenant who might have fear of retaliation. I get that,” Newhouse said, “My question applies to a landlord who might have 10 or more units across an entire city in different areas. How would you enforce the price increase retaliation bit?”
Hallett pointed out another challenge to enforcing that provision. Most landlords with more than 10 rental houses in Tulsa don’t own all of their investment properties under one name or limited liability company, he said.
“For someone who owns 20 or 30 homes in town, each home might have a different owner according to property records because each one is owned by a different LLC. That hides the true number of units owned by one person. This law wouldn’t apply to them,” Hallett said.
Last summer, a nonprofit aimed at helping low-income Oklahomans studied evictions in eight counties — Canadian, Cleveland, Comanche, Garfield, Logan, Oklahoma, Payne, Rogers and Tulsa. Of the 510 eviction orders granted last June and July in those counties, 89% were filed by corporate landlords. Most filed multiple evictions in a single day, according to the Oklahoma Access to Justice Foundation.
More than half of landlords had lawyers. Only 4% of tenants had legal representation.
A System For Keeping Tenants Behind
Casey Robinson remodels and rents properties in North Tulsa. Under his LLC, Robinson Properties, he owns 150 rental homes, which he described as affordable to low-income renters. He said despite owning more than 10 rentals, local landlords like him are not the problem HB2109 is trying to address and putting pressure on them will only hurt the low-income renters it’s meant to help.
“I believe this bill will bottleneck the court system even further and make the cost of business go up,” Robinson said, explaining that retaliation cases will keep renters and their landlords in court for longer — causing people to lose out on their investments and exacerbating the issue of an already packed eviction docket. Tulsa County, in the two days Access to Justice Observed its docket, saw 172 evictions filed, but the number can balloon to well over 200.
Hallett said the fact that an eviction or reduction of service won’t be considered retaliatory if a tenant is behind on rent negates what the law is meant to accomplish in the first place, and the only real way to know if it works is to watch its provisions play out in court.
Most low-income tenants start their rental journeys behind, Hallett said. A study by the Terry West Legal Clinic at the University of Tulsa law school showed 97% of evictions filed in January 2020 in Tulsa were because of past due rent for amounts as low as $39.
“One way to be a slumlord in Oklahoma is to make sure your tenant is always behind,” Hallett said, “You do that by requiring upfront pay of two months rent. Then what happens is the tenant says they can only pay one month and the landlord says they will let them catch up over time. In the ledger, it shows that the tenant is always behind.
“Then anytime they complain, the landlord just calls in that rent and files a rent-based eviction. That’s always been the case.”
Robinson said he’s seen that system play out in another, but similar fashion, attributing the practice to hedge fund apartment owners.
“It’s the same complexes that advertise an apartment for $600 and get people interested that way,” He said, “But they only have $700 apartments.”
He said the trick is to allow someone to pay just a little less than the total amount they owe for one month to ensure they’re behind, then charge them high late fees every month thereafter until they have a reason to evict them.
Robinson said that while he does see the need to address apartment complexes that target low-income tenants with evictions, he worries HB2109 will cause landlords like him to raise application standards for renters and avoid people with past evictions or criminal histories.
“We are one of the landlords who try to provide affordable housing,” he said, “but I could see a bill like this cause everyone to raise their standards. They would say ‘We’re not going to give this person a second shot because they are a little bit iffy on their background.’”
Pae said the listed exceptions were included as amendments after the bill’s initial introduction to placate the concerns of landlords and fellow Republicans who didn’t want to support the bill otherwise.
“With the amendments we’ve made, we’ve addressed concerns about where the burden of proof is, and making sure landlords still have the options of eviction and increased rent,” Pae said.
Lionel Ramos is a Report for America corps member who covers race and equity issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at 405-905-9953 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @LionelRamos_.